One sentence synopsis: A carnival magician is transported to the magical land of Oz, where he must fulfill a prophecy to destroy the Wicked Witch.
Things Havoc liked: Say what you will about this movie's qualities, it has an awesome title.
L Frank Baum's Oz series is a never-ending source of astonishment to me, if only because of the sheer bulk of the thing. I knew only that there was a book and the classic movie made therefrom, but it turns out Baum wrote no fewer than fourteen Oz books, with another forty-odd being published by a host of authors afterwards, which would appear to make Oz the fantasy equivalent of Lovecraft (there's a crossover I'd like to see). Having never seen a thing from all this material save of course for the 1939 Judy Garland movie, I could only assume that this prequel is derived from canonical sources, and that given everything here, the film-writers were free to plunder a near-infinite quantity of material for their adaptation of what happened before Dorothy found the red shoes.
Some adaptations, reboots, or sequels, don't even seem to be aware of the existence of their previous work. No such difficulties here. The opening sequence of the film, the first 30 minutes or so of it, is a beat-for-beat remake of the opening for Wizard of Oz. We are introduced via a sepia-toned crop-formatted sequence to a series of characters that we will never see again for the rest of the film, but whose actors and voices will follow us into the land of Oz itself. This transitions, following a tornado, into a wonderful technicolor (or in this case, 3D) panorama, showcasing the miracles of modern film-graphics. Though I saw the movie in 2D, 3D and the latest digital effects are here intended to stand in for the miracle that was color in 1939, but the design doesn't just pile images on us. Backdrops are created to look rather uncannily like the expansive matte paintings of yesteryear, generally with more success than failure, while the world has a vibrancy and broad, pastel palette that one doesn't often see, even in this age of oversaturated CG.
Though the movie is theoretically about the Wizard (more on him later) the focus is oddly enough on the three witches Glinda, Evanora, and Theodora, of various, shifting allegiances good or evil. A fair amount of time is spent establishing the three of them, particularly Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz. Easily the best actor in the film (helped by getting the best material), Weisz's associated antics are the most realistic (not an attribute in high supply around Oz) and the easiest to follow. Though she hams it up when necessary, she provides a nice sheen of grounding to a story that could very easily fly completely to pieces. Several of the smaller details are appreciated as well. A visit to a village made entirely of porcelain results in the Wizard finding a small girl made of china, who joins the inevitable "party" as they make their way towards destiny. The China Girl verges on annoying at times, but the movie manages to keep her bearable, while the effects used to produce her are, in this case at least, genuinely fascinating, putting aside the big-budget spectacle in favor of real texture and sharpness to a fictional character.
Things Havoc disliked: You may have noticed that I've finished with the stuff I liked without discussing the main character, most of the rest of the cast, the writing, story, and cinematography. I think you know why.
First of all, what is Sam Raimi doing here? I understand the desire to branch out, but this is so far from Raimi's strengths that I cannot for the life of me figure out what he was thinking. Raimi cut his teeth on low-budget horror-schlock such as Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, or Drag me to Hell before breaking into the superhero business with the original Spiderman trilogy. I love these movies, but none of them are anything like Wizard of Oz, and whoever decided that Raimi, who never met a slapstick routine he didn't like, should be given the keys to a reboot of a 70-year-old fantastical wonderland classic should have their damned heads examined. Raimi, characteristically, fills the movie with wacky pratfall nonsense, particularly in the first half when he simply stops the movie for about ten minutes so that the 3D audience can get their money's worth. When things aren't being thrown at the screen, we instead get pratfalls and slapstick, not perhaps to the extent of the Transformers atrocities, but plenty. Many of these involve Tony Cox (of Bad Santa and the Epic Movie series) or Bill Cobbs (the poor filmmaker's Morgan Freeman), neither of whom belong anywhere near a movie about Oz.
But Cox and Cobbs are secondary actors. Let's talk about the main actors, such as James Franco, playing Oscar Diggs, a carnival magician turned Wizard-savior. I respect the hell out of Franco's absurd commitment to his craft and truly mad work and study schedule he follows religiously, but I've never liked him in damn near any movie he's been in, not even movies widely regarded as tours-de-force (127 Hours, for instance). His work in the Spiderman films was among the low points of the series, and he singlehandedly ruined Rise of the Planet of the Apes for me with his laconic, wooden style, a style he carries over, I'm sad to say, into this film. It's not that Franco's horrible, he's really not, but he can't act worth a damn beyond his usual vaguely-stoned, detached schtick, and while there's roles that works for, I assume, this is not among them. There's no real sense of wonder (or for that matter, sincerity) from Franco's performance, to the point where, when the movie calls for him to play the actual Wizard of Oz, complete with floating smoke-head, pyrotechnics, and fiery wrath, he comes across sounding like a parent trying to scare their five-year-old into thinking there's a ghost in the closet (Oooooooo! I'm the big bad Wizard of Ozzzzzz!). Granted, the screenplay does him no favors, sending him on a boring, predictable rote-telling of the "hero's journey", wherein he must learn to overcome his greed and be the good person he always was etc etc... But even pedestrian material can be elevated by a great performance, and Franco's not up to the task.
Neither, by the way, are Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis, playing the other two witches. I haven't seen Kunis since Black Swan, and based on this performance, I'm in no hurry for the next encounter. To describe her character fully would enter the realm of spoilers, but suffice to say she spends the majority of the movie either making a pastiche-quality attempt to imitate a classic character from the original film, or creeping out the rest of the cast and the audience with a weird, disjointed performance. The best thing I can say about her character involves a makeup effect. Williams, meanwhile, playing Glinda the Good, is caught helplessly between the roles of "mentor who sees the true potential in our hapless protagonist" and damsel in distress, possessing neither the necessary gravitas for the former role, nor the proper chemistry with Franco for the latter one. The result is an uneven, bland performance, uninteresting even when the scriptwriter decides to steal the wizard duel from Fellowship of the Ring wholesale and present us with a witch's duel which, on paper, should work, but thanks to its inept blocking and terrible pacing, simply does not. The best that can be said of Zach Braff meanwhile, who voices a winged monkey that joins Oz on his journey, is that he doesn't stoop to Jar-Jar Binks levels of annoyance. But then that's hardly glowing praise.
Final thoughts: That's really the story of Oz the Great and Powerful. There's nothing wrong with a fresh look at Oz in principle, but neither Raimi, nor these actors, nor the screenwriters seem to have had any real ideas of substance to bring to it. Even Danny Elfman's score is instantly forgettable, not even attempting to approach Herbert Strothart's fantastic contribution to the original. Mired in modern contrivances and lacking any genuine charm, the movie simply has nothing to offer beyond a tired tramp through a thin knock-off of a classic film. Not being an obsessive fan of the original, I can't exactly cry betrayal over this tepid remake, but if you're looking for a movie to recapture some of the magic of the original Wizard of Oz, then I'm afraid this one's nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Final Score: 4/10